COTTONWOOD - Rivalry games mean a lot even when all signs point to a blowout. Football teams are a reflection of a community, and small-town pride comes out most when cross-valley schools lock horns on the gridiron. Camp Verde (1-8) will play Mingus (6-3) this Friday on Bright Field in Cottonwood.
The schools first played football against each other in 1970, but they stopped after the 1972 season because the rivalry was too intense; people were getting hurt on and off the field, and it was just too much for the schools to handle.
They renewed the rivalry from '85 to '88, but then didn't play again until last season when Camp Verde beat Mingus for the first time in school history.
Camp Verde's squad last year was probably the best team they've ever had, loaded with seniors, a dedicated line, a talented tailback, and a shifty dual-threat quarterback.
With all those seniors gone, the Cowboys were destined to struggle this season, but other factors compounded the toil.
"We've had our ups and downs, eligibility issues coupled with not having that many kids, but they're playing hard. I'm disappointed we didn't get some wins that I thought we should have; I can look to three games we could have won that we didn't. Costly turnovers killed us, but other than that, some younger kids have been getting a lot of playing time and we've been in the weight room. We've changed our philosophy to more of a teaching mode this year," said Camp Verde head coach Luke Steege.
Steege points to games against Sedona, Cortez, and Payson as games Camp Verde could have won, but youth and inexperience squelched Cowboy campaigns. Things have not gone well for Big Blue, a program that had a streak of seven playoff appearances until this year. The team got their first win last week against Greyhills, a reservation school.
"These kids have stuck it out and it shows a lot about their character. Things haven't gone well for us this season, but they've continued on, and that's when you really get to see a person for who they are," said Steege. "When things go bad like this, but you continue to come to work everyday, it shows a lot of character."
The entire Camp Verde football program now has 27 players on one team. Conversely, Mingus has about 90 kids and can field three teams: freshman, JV, and Varsity.
Mingus had a 6-1 record three weeks ago, but dropped away games to Prescott and Snowflake, so they need a win against Camp Verde to secure a spot in the playoffs. All signs point to Mingus winning easily, but Mingus head coach Bob Young is taking nothing for granted.
"Last year was the first year we've played them in a long time, but every time we play Camp Verde it's a wild rivalry game. I think it's one of those deals where it doesn't matter what the record is, those kids are going to try and beat our butts, and we're going to try and do the same," said Young. "I guarantee they'll play their best game against us."
Mingus needs a bounce back win after two weeks of disappointment. Prescott and Snowflake play well, but Mingus underperformed in back-to-back losses.
It was thought after the Snowflake game Mingus lost their shot at a home playoff game, but apparently they can still host a first-round game, as they are currently seeded seventh. The teams Mingus lost to this season are good, and the Marauders still have a shot at a playoff run, regardless of whether they host a game or not.
On top of playoff implications, Mingus needs to rectify last year's loss to the Cowboys, an historic event with perfect timing for Camp Verde. It took over 20 years to renew the rivalry, and it just so happened Camp Verde had one of their best teams ever.
The AIA will change division groupings next year and Mingus will likely move up to division III. Decisions still need to be made and schools can petition for changes, but the way things look now, Mingus and Camp Verde might not play each other in football next year. If history repeats itself, the game Friday could be the last football matchup between the two schools for at least a decade.
The way Camp Verde has recently struggled, they're not going to petition to play Mingus anytime soon. Enjoy the game Friday, it could be the last Verde River Rivalry football game for several generations.